Know the 7 Symptoms of Breast Cancer
Breast cancer develops when cells in your breast grow and divide in a rapid and uncontrolled way. This rampant cell division creates the mass known as a tumor and results in the lump that many women typically associate with breast cancer.
While lumps in the breast and underarm are common, these aren’t the only symptoms of breast cancer. Signs can include itching, swelling and changes in skin color, among others. More mature women may have a greater awareness of the various symptoms due to the increased likelihood of developing breast cancer beyond the age of 45, but younger women are not free from risk and should know the signs too.
No matter what stage of life you’re in, this guide will ensure you know what breast cancer signs to look out for.
What are the 7 symptoms of breast cancer?
Breast cancer can be difficult to detect in its early stages but knowing which signs to look out for – as well as how your breasts usually look and feel – can go a long way to helping you identify potential breast cancer symptoms.
1. Lumps in the breast or underarm
Finding a lump in your breast or underarm can be worrying, but it doesn’t necessarily signal breast cancer. Lumps may be caused by hormonal fluctuations due to pregnancy or your menstrual cycle, swollen lymph nodes, or an infection. Some breasts are just naturally lumpy.
You may want to see a doctor if you feel a new lump that moves when pushed – especially if it’s located in the upper outer quadrant of your breast. Lumps associated with breast cancer are commonly found in this area; they are usually hard and don’t cause any pain when touched.
Be sure to take note of the size and shape of the lump, too. Growing masses with irregular edges are a common warning sign of breast cancer in women.
2. Swelling of all or part of the breast
Your breasts can swell for a variety of reasons, but an increase in the size of your breast without any prior trauma or hormonal changes could signal breast cancer.
Breast tissue covers a large portion of the torso, from the collarbone wrapping around to the underarm, and is filled with fatty tissue and lymph nodes. Swollen lymph nodes are an indication that your body is fighting infection or disease, and can often be an early symptom of breast cancer.
If the skin on one breast feels tight and your breasts appear to be different sizes with no ostensible cause for this – for example bruising or other injury – this could be symptomatic of breast cancer.
3. Skin dimpling
Cancer cells can cause lymph fluid to build up in your breast tissue. Besides swelling, this can also lead to skin dimpling.
Dimpled – or pitted – skin looks like the surface of an orange and can be an indication of inflammatory breast cancer. In addition to the pitted appearance, skin may also ‘feel’ thicker.
4. Skin irritation
Crusting, scaling, flaking, peeling and itching of the skin on the breast or nipple can all be breast cancer symptoms. As with skin dimpling, these signs are most often associated with inflammatory breast cancer, which is a particularly aggressive form of the illness.
Itching of the nipple could be related to Paget’s disease of the breast, which causes an eczema-like irritation of the skin and areola. This rare condition is usually an indication of breast cancer in the tissue behind the nipple.
That said, discerning whether skin irritations are a cause for concern has a lot to do with how typical these issues are for you. If you are prone to eczema and you find your breasts itch and the skin flakes, it is likely a flare up of your skin condition. If the problem persists, however, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor.
5. Breast or nipple pain
Breast cancer – especially the lumps commonly associated with the illness – is often painless. But the development of a tumor can lead to tenderness and discomfort in the breast.
Most often, breast tenderness can be attributed to the hormonal changes that take place across the various stages of your menstrual cycle. For example, the increase in estrogen and progesterone in the second half of your cycle (approximately one to two weeks after menstruation begins) can both lead to sore breasts. Other hormonal changes, like pregnancy or menopause, may also account for this type of pain.
If the pain isn’t usual and persists for days or weeks, this could signal breast cancer.
6. Nipple retraction
Also known as nipple inversion, your nipple turning inward is one of the possible signs of breast cancer. This may look as though your nipple is sunken or indented, or it may simply look different in size.
As with breast and nipple pain, the appearance of your nipples can change throughout the course of your monthly menstrual cycle. Plus, nipple inversion also occurs as we age. In these cases, though, both nipples will be similarly affected.
If the changes in your nipples are sudden or different on each breast, it may be a good idea to see your healthcare provider.
7. Nipple discharge
If you aren’t breastfeeding, it can be alarming to see discharge from your nipple. However, injuries, infections and some medications can all cause the excretion of fluid from your breasts. Like mucous, discharge that occurs because of an underlying infection can range from clear to milky or be yellow or green.
Discharge, especially if it’s bloody, is one of the signs of breast cancer and you should have your breast examined as soon as possible.
Screening yourself for breast cancer signs
There are two parts to a breast self-examination: the visual and manual examinations.
- Visual examination: check to see whether you notice any changes in shape, size, symmetry or appearance of your breasts.
- Manual examination: raise your arm above your head and, using your index, middle and ring finger on your opposite hand, apply pressure to your breast in a circular motion, feeling for lumps or differences in the tissue.
See also: Breast Cancer Screening: A Go-to Guide
Be sure to perform your self-examination at more or less the same time in your menstrual cycle each month. Hormonal fluctuations cause changes in breast tissue, increasing sensitivity and lumpiness at different stages.
For a precise and pain-free check throughout the month, you can use breast examination devices like Celbrea®, which was developed for the early detection of breast diseases like breast cancer. These devices are non-invasive and easy to use and produce accurate results regardless of your hormonal cycle.